Canada’s boreal caribou need federal government’s help

October 19, 2011

HALIFAX, N.S.—The woodland caribou of Canada’s vast boreal forest are in trouble. Listed as nationally “threatened” under the federal Species At Risk Act, many local caribou populations are in steep decline from the Yukon to Labrador, and in some places, appear to be in free-fall. Their range has also shrunk significantly over time, as boreal caribou are relegated further and further north by industrialization.

Humans are the primary cause of the decline of boreal caribou. There is strong scientific evidence that shows when large intact forests are fragmented by human disturbances, caribou populations decline. These disturbances include logging, mining, roads, seismic lines and transmission corridors, which are increasingly spreading into even the most remote areas of the boreal forest.

For the majority of Canadians who live close to the 49th parallel, this trend should be of great concern. Caribou’s presence indicates the health of our country’s boreal forests, which cleanse our air, provide fresh water, provide habitat for millions of birds, and store vast amounts of carbon.

Serious measures are needed to bring the boreal caribou back from their long slide into extinction. As Canadians, we need to take the necessary steps to save the boreal caribou, which involves protecting large tracts of the boreal forest from human disturbance.

Environment Canada has just released a proposed recovery strategy for the boreal caribou required under the Species At Risk Act, and is looking for public feedback until Oct. 25.The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) is pleased that the federal government is moving ahead with the release of the recovery strategy and properly identifies human disturbance as a major cause of the caribou decline, but we are concerned that there are loopholes in the document that will allow for the continued destruction of important boreal caribou habitat.

Upon reviewing the details of the proposed recovery strategy, we have identified a number of serious weaknesses with the proposed recovery strategy that need to be addressed. Some of our major concerns include:

•Setting the bar too low for caribou’s long-term health by assuming that a 60 per cent level of probability of survival is adequate. At this probability level, the strategy allows human disturbance of up to 35 per cent of remaining caribou habitat. The reasons for setting the probability level so low are unexplained and leave little room for error or unanticipated events.

• Failing to adequately identify sufficient critical habitat for many local caribou populations, leaving large tracts of their ranges effectively unregulated.

Using arbitrary methods for dividing caribou ranges into separate categories, with different proposed management regimes for each and in some cases different recovery objectives.

• Permitting the destruction of critical habitat for caribou with the lowest probabilities of long-term survival where predator culls are proposed— mainly wolves—without a long-term recovery plan for the caribou.

• Failing to set as its objective self-sustaining populations for all local woodland caribou populations. Instead the strategy proposes that some already at-risk populations would only be “stabilized” at their current low levels for many years.

CPAWS believes that conserving boreal woodland caribou habitat across the country is possible while also ensuring a prosperous forest sector. We are working to achieve both goals with other conservation organizations and forestry companies through the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement.

Canada’s boreal forest is the largest intact forest remaining on the planet. It provides habitat for many different species, pulls huge amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere, and cleans our air and water. As a nation, it is our global responsibility to look after this globally-significant ecosystem. As part of that responsibility, we must ensure that we look after the boreal caribou and ensure that this iconic species always has enough wilderness to roam.

To do that, as a nation we must be bolder when it comes to protecting boreal caribou habitat. We must ensure that there is enough interconnected wilderness remaining for this species, that it is not fragmented and destroyed by industrial development. We must err on the side of caution when setting recovery targets for the caribou, giving them a much better shot at long term survival than the current 60 per cent probability. We must ensure that all remaining populations are recovered to the point of being self-sustaining.

And, we must close the loopholes in the current proposed recover strategy that allow for the destruction of boreal caribou’s critical habitat.

Chris Miller is a national conservation biologist at Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and is based in Halifax, N.S.

[email protected]

The Hill Times

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